Volume 3 No.3 Fall 1999
Brigham Young University
Any form of energy, when not properly controlled or harnessed, can result in serious danger to those who use it. The dangers inherent with electricity can generally be divided into two categories: direct and indirect. The direct danger is the damage that the electricity itself can do to the human body, such as stoppage of breathing or regular heartbeats, or burns. The indirect dangers include the damages that can result to the human body as a result of something caused by electricity, such as a fall, an explosion, or a fire.
main purposes of this article are to provide the reader with an awareness of the
overall dangers of electricity, and to provide some insight into the
physiological effects of electrical shock on the human body. The dangers
inherent with electricity can generally be classified as either indirect dangers
or direct dangers. Although indirect dangers will be discussed, the main part of
the article will focus on the physiological effects of electrical shock on the
storage and use of electricity is often associated with sparks--electrical or
electrostatic discharges. For example, motors with brushes have short arcs
between the brush tips and the moving rotor constantly during operation; relays
and switches open and close with a small arc between the contacts; plugging in
an appliance which is already turned on causes a small spark; connecting a
battery to a device which is turned on will also cause a small spark. And
finally, there is the common discharge of static electricity that occurs when a
charged body comes into contact or near-contact with a body at a different
potential. In most circumstances, such sparks are not a problem. However, if the
atmosphere in which the spark occurs is laden with fine particulates, or a
flammable gas, one spark can set off an explosion and/or a fire. There are
numerous examples of such incidents (1, 2, 3); reference #3 tells the
all-too-common story of an explosion caused when a man was using volatile
chemicals in a basement and a spark ignited the fumes.
plugs are probably the most common example of an explosion ignited by an
electric discharge. In this case, the explosion is intended and occurs under
carefully controlled conditions. However, electric or electrostatic discharges
can be very dangerous in many less-controlled environments. These environments
include grain elevators, paint-spraying booths, explosives and fireworks
facilities, fuel storage facilities, coal mines, and many others. If there are
fine airborne particulates of combustible material, or vapors of volatile
compounds, the conditions are ripe for ignition and subsequent explosion.
indirect danger associated with electricity, and directly connected with the
above danger of explosions, is the danger of fire. Not all explosions ignited by
an electric spark result in a subsequent fire, but many do. So, even if a person
survives the initial blast, unless they are removed from the area, they could be
injured or killed by a subsequent fire.
final indirect danger associated with electricity is associated with one of the
physiological responses of the human body to electric shock, and is the hazard
of being involuntarily moved by the electric shock. The bodys muscles
contract when they receive a small electrical signal from the brain through the
nerve system. External electrical signals, such as those resulting from an
electric shock, can also cause muscle contraction, as demonstrated long ago
(1791) by Luigi Galvani and his experiments with frogs and electricity (4).
These externally caused muscle contractions are involuntary, and in many cases
can be violent. For example, a worker near Bristol, England was digging near a
buried electric cable, and was
thrown over three meters when he accidentally sliced through the cable (5).
Fortunately, he survived. But if he had been thrown against moving machinery or
against some sharp object, he would not have been so fortunate. The force that
threw him over three meters was not the electricity itself, but the reaction of
his muscles to the electrical stimulus, involuntarily contracting and throwing
The direct dangers associated with electricity are primarily divided into burns and cardiac effects. The former danger can readily be modeled when considering the body as a conductor of electricity. The latter danger is much more complex, and involves an understanding of the normal operation of the heart and the interfering action electricity can have on it.
flow of current through a resistive material is always associated with the
production of heat. This heat is proportional to the resistance of the material
and the square of the current, according to the equation P=I˛R, where P is the
power in watts, I is the current in amperes, and R is the resistance in ohms.
primary resistive material of the human body is the epidermis, the layer of dead
skin cells that lies on top of the dermis. Normally, this layer of skin is
relatively dry, and the cells themselves are also dry, having died and released
their moisture. Thus, this layer of skin provides a reasonable amount of
resistance to the flow of electricity, generally from about 1 kS
up to about 100 kS.
The wide variation is a function of the ambient humidity, the individuals
production of body oils, and exterior emollients that may have been added to the
skin, such as lotion. It also depends on the degree to which the skin is
compressed; greater compression forces the dead skin cells into contact with
each other and reduces the resistance of the skin.
electricity enters the body through the skin, it encounters very little
resistance due to the electrolytes (conductive fluids) contained within the
body. Most of the fluids within the body are electrolytes, and vary in
resistance from milli-ohms to only a few ohms.
the body comes into contact with a source of electricity, the amount of current
that flows is proportional to the voltage, and inversely proportional to the
resistance, according to the well-known Ohms Law: I=E/R, where I is the
current, E is the voltage, and R is the resistance. Due to the large difference
between the resistance of the skin compared to that of the inner body with all
its electrolytes, the major limitation to the flow of current is the skin. This
would also be where the greatest heating occurs, since the heat is proportional
to the resistance. In applications where electricity is purposely applied to the
body, such as in defibrillation, electrosurgery, electromuscular stimulation, or
electrocutions, great care is taken to reduce the resistance of the skin by
applying conductive gels to both the skin and the electrodes. Without such gels,
properly applied, significant skin burns often result. For example, reference #6
describes the care that must be taken to prevent such burns during
electrosurgery, even when the currents are as low as 200 mA. Reference #7
describes a liquid and potash solution used to lower the resistance of the
skin for the electrocution of death-row inmates.
nature of this heating is such that if the amount of heat produced by the flow
of electrical current exceeds the heat escape paths, a significant temperature
rise occurs at the interface between the body and the electrode. Heat escape
occurs primarily through the conductive and convective action of body fluids
moving in the body, particularly the blood. A minimal amount of heat escapes by
convection to the air; heat escaping by radiation is negligible. The ability of
the body fluids to remove heat is relatively low, partly due to their relatively
low thermal conductivity, and partly due to the relatively low flow rate
(convection) of these fluids. This allows a rapid buildup of heat on the
epidermis, which is thermally conducted to the lower layers of live skin cells,
causing the skin burns. At prolonged higher current, burns in the inner tissue
result, particularly the muscle tissue.
serious as these burns are, they are generally not the primary cause of death in
victims of accidental electrocution. But they can be the cause of serious
subsequent infections which can occasionally prove fatal.
effects of electricity on the human heart are generally the most serious
considerations when dealing with electricity, because this is how most victims
of accidental electrocution die. Table 1 (8) summarizes the effects of electric
current on the human body; note that currents less than 5 mA are generally
imperceptible, and that currents above 100 mA are the lethal currents. Currents
in excess of 6 A can cause severe burns and associated trauma; currents above 20
A can physically dismember the body. Currents between 100 mA and 1 A are the
most dangerous to the heart, and voltages between 50 V and 240 V are those that
can readily produce these currents, if the skin is wet. According to Ohms Law
and the low 1 kS value of the resistance of the skin, a 50 V source produces only 50 mA
through the body, which is painful but generally not deadly. However, if the
voltage is 120 V, the current becomes 120 mA; at 240 V, the current is 240 mA,
both of which are right in the range of the currents most dangerous to the
as maximum harmless current intensity
- 20 mAmperes
can still let go; sustained muscular contraction not yet a problem
strong muscular contraction; cant let go; possible fainting,
exhaustion. Heart and respiratory functions continue.
- 300 mAmperes
fibrillation can start; respiratory functions continue
cardiac and respiratory interruption; burns.
burns; physical dismemberment at higher currents.
Physiological Effects of Various Current Intensities
danger is that these electrical currents will interrupt the normal electrical
signals of the body that cause the rhythmic contractions of the heart muscle.
When this happens, the heart enters a state of fibrillation, which is
essentially the ineffective random quivering contractions of the heart, rather
than the rhythmic full contractions that pump blood. If fibrillation is not
overcome within a matter of 3-5 minutes, the victim will die.
frequent question that arises is why some people are relatively unaffected by
currents between 100 mA and 1 A. Research on the heart has shown that
ventricular fibrillation as a result of electric shock is also a matter of
timing (9). The contraction cycle of the heart proceeds through various phases,
each of which occupy a different amount of time. Although it is possible to
induce fibrillation during each phase, the difficulty of doing so is
dramatically lower during the reset portion of the systole phase. If a lethal
amount of current enters the heart during this phase, there is a very high
likelihood that the heart will go into fibrillation. The odds of being shocked
during this phase of the heart cycle are approximately 20%. Thus, the majority
of people shocked by a lethal amount of current will live through it, but it is
truly a game of Russian roulette.
there are the effects of the path of the current through the body. Some people
have been struck by lightning and the main current path stayed on the outside of
the skin; they were fortunate and were not killed. People who work around 120 V
or 240 V are instructed to keep one hand behind their back; this prevents them
from accidentally putting one hand on a live wire while the other hand is
grounded. If they were to make contact in this way, the path for the electricity
would pass through the heart, the most dangerous path possible. If one hand is
kept behind the back, accidentally contacting a live wire will not pass current
through the heart, and the current is then much less dangerous.
the understanding of the previous sections, some common questions arise about
safety with electricity. Some of these, along with their answers, follow.
Q: If it is current that is dangerous, why do the warning signs say, Danger!
High Voltage!? A: The answer is Ohms Law; if the voltage is low (generally
<50V), it is incapable of producing sufficient current in the human body
under normal conditions, and therefore is safe. However, if the voltage is high
(generally considered >600 V), it is always very
dangerous, and often fatal, because the resulting currents are so high. The high
voltage is what makes the high (lethal) currents possible.
Q: The 12 V of an automobile battery is greater than the 9 V of a small 9-V
battery, yet I can feel the 9 V on my tongue, while I cannot feel the 12 V in my
hands if I hold the bare jumper cables. Why is that?
A: The answer is again Ohms Law. The resistance of the skin on the
hands is much higher than that of the tongue, plus the tongue is wet, which
further lowers the resistance. Looking over Table 1, we can see that the
sensations experienced on the tongue with 9-V batteries mean that the current is
in the range of 30 mA for fresh batteries, down to <5 mA for deader
batteries. This means that the resistance of the tongue is about 300 S,
resulting in 30 mA at 9 Volts, and only 10 mA at a relatively dead voltage of 3
Q: At the county fair, I saw a person sit in an electric chair. When the voltage
was turned on, they were able to touch and light up a flourescent tube held by
an assistant. They were unaffected by the experience. How can this be?
A: Flourescent tubes are lit up by high voltages and low currents; for
example, a 20-Watt higher-voltage flourescent tubes is lit up by 4 kV; according
to the power formula, I=P/E, the current required is 20 W / 4 kV = 5 mA. This
low of a current is barely perceptible to the person sitting in the electric
Q: While using an arc welder one time, I felt a mild shock as I knelt on the
workpiece. These arc welders are powered by 240 V and are capable of delivering
well over 100 A; how could I have survived?
A: Arc welders DO deliver very high amperages, but they dont need the
high voltages for the welding, since there is a short circuit and thus very low
resistance. The welder steps the voltage down to roughly 40 Volts, which is why
you felt a tingling; however, 40 Volts is insufficient to cause bodily injury
under most circumstances.
Q: Pure water is a relatively good insulator. Why, then, is water such a concern
when discussing safety with electricity? A:
Although it is true that pure water is a reasonably good insulator, water picks
up and dissolves impurities quite readily, and these impurities impart to the
water a dramatically lower resistance. Also, when skin is exposed to water,
especially for any extended period of time, the outer layer of dead skin cells
becomes saturated with the water and the normally high resistance of this skin
layer drops significantly. Water also increases the surface area over which the
electricity can contact the skin, since the water fills all the air gaps
normally present between the cells. The increase in surface area also lowers
resistance to electricity.
indirect dangers of electricity, although very significant, are generally much
less hazardous than the direct dangers. This is because the exacerbating
conditions necessary for these indirect dangers are much less common than the
simple conditions necessary for simple exposure to electricity.
The primary danger of direct exposure to electricity is coronary
fibrillation, a condition which is quickly fatal if not reversed. Since we can
do little to control the voltages in our homes and businesses, the only way to
lower the current that enters our body if we accidentally are exposed to
electricity is to keep our resistance high. This we can do by always wearing
shoes and by staying dry while working on or near electricity.
1925: Coal mine explosion; Safer industry emerges from the ashes of death,
Stephen Beaven; The Indianapolis Star,
May 16, 1999, p. D01.
|||Warning: Filling gas cans on vehicle bed liners dangerous, Carlos Byars; The Houston Chronicle, August 31, 1996, p. 44|
Violent blast lifts house, The
Toronto Sun, June 23, 1999, p. 24.
|||Remembering Luigi Galvani on the Bicentennial of His Death, A. de Micheli-Serra; Gaceta Medica de Mexico, May-June 1999, pp 323-328|
Shock injury, The Independent
(London), March 27, 1995, p. 2.
Electrosurgical arc burns at dispersive electrode sites, J.A. Pearce; Proceedings
- AAMI 19th Annual Meeting: Abstracts on the Application of
Technology to Health Care, 1984, p. 65.
Inventing electrocution, J.F. Penrose; Invention
& Technology, Spring 1994, pp 35-44.
||| Student Reference Manual for Electronic Instrumentation Laboratories,
Stanley Wolf and Richard F.M. Smith, Prentice Hall, 1990; p. 48.
|||Ventricular Fibrillation Due to Single, Localized Induction and Condenser Shocks Applied During the Vulnerable Phase of Ventricular Systole; Carl J. Wiggers and René Wégria; American Journal of Physiology, 128: 500-505, 1940.|
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